Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, August 3, 2017
Evelyn Kok’s art finds the audience she never sought
Christina Shipps held an exhibit and book signing in early July at her aunt Evelyn Kok’s studio in Stonington.
by Anne Berleant
For five decades, Evelyn Kok spent summer days in her studio on Main Street, The Gallery of the Purple Fish, painting, composing, writing and engaging with locals and visitors of all ages.
Sprung from a long line of artists, inventors and free thinkers, and liberated as a young, married woman from any need to earn a living, “every single thing she did every day was producing art,” her niece, Christina Shipps said. “Her shopping list was calligraphy. She made her own clothing.”
But Kok’s gallery was filled by a 16-foot Peapod, not her artwork, because one thing she did not do was exhibit or sell her work, Shipps said. “She did not care about recognition.”
However, a recently published book, There Has to be Magic: The Art of Evelyn Kok, written by curator and former director of the Maine Arts Commission Donna McNeil, brings together Kok’s life and art in a heavy, hardbound book that holds the weight of her life within its pages.
Shipps exhibited some of her aunt’s work in early July; she and McNeil were at the gallery to sign copies of the book and to talk about Kok.
Surrounded by Kok’s watercolors, medical illustrations, posters and prints, with racks of reproductions in note and greeting cards, the exhibit and book are the start of Shipp’s goal “to show the world what she did.”
Kok graduated from the School of Practical Arts (now The College of Art and Design at Lesley University) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, trained as a medical illustrator, and worked successfully in the field until she married. She and her husband began summering on the island, and Shipps began visiting Stonington as a child.
“We were kindred spirits,” Shipps said. “She was the most important person in my life.”
Their relationship began one hour after Shipps was born, she relates in the book’s introduction; Kok and her husband Jan were the family Shipps turned to “whenever open-minded, wise counsel was needed.”
In 1996, at her aunt’s urging, Shipps bought the old Captain’s Quarters and turned it into the Inn on the Harbor, and only then did Kok allow some of her work to be shown.
“After renovations, there was no money left to buy art,” Shipps said. Her aunt’s gift was to frame some paintings to hang in the rooms, telling her niece, “But you can’t have them. They’re mine,” Shipps recalled.
Kok died in 2014 at age 91. “She was painting up to the end,” said Shipps, who inherited her aunt’s studio and “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds” of artworks in pen and ink, oil, and watercolor, now stored at Shipp’s farmhouse in Patten, “the only place big enough to house all her art.”
Shipps effort to bring her aunt’s work into the world began when she contacted the President of Maine College of Art, who had stayed at the inn and seen some of Kok’s work in the rooms. He connected Shipps with McNeil. The independently published There Has to be Magic is Shipp’s first step towards a full exhibit.
In a neat twist of serendipity, McNeil met Kok years ago on a trip to Stonington when she wandered into the gallery and tried to buy one of Kok’s medical illustrations tacked on the wall above a work table. “She wouldn’t sell it to me,” McNeil said. “But I had no idea of the breadth of her work.”
There Has to Be Magic, and greeting and notecard collections of Kok’s work are available at theartofevelynkok.com. The cards are also available in Stonington at Dry Dock, Alfred’s Roost in Deer Isle, and at Mainescape in Blue Hill.
The Gallery of the Purple Fish is currently for sale, and Shipps recently sold the Inn On The Harbor, as she prepares to live full time on her Patten farm. A graduate of the Boston Museum School of Art, Shipps is a silversmith and jeweler turned farmer, still inspired by the woman who gave her a piece of her art each year as a birthday present.
“My aunt was magic. Anyone from town who knew her, they used the word ‘magic’ to describe her,” said Shipps.